How scientists speak

Humanising statistics is necessary in our political climate

scientist

The homepage of the Australian Vaccination-risks Network is bright and colourful. The header is a stock photo of a smiling heterosexual couple with their baby. But a few clicks away, the website loudly proclaims:

“Anyone who thinks that the vaccine-autism link began and ended … needs to do more research.”

The anti-vaxxer movement is founded on ableist pseudoscience, and there is a lot of scientific research disproving it. But there is resistance to this proof, a symptom of the same pro-individualist, reactionary politics as climate denialism. The AVN is right to call for doing your research, but there are three significant barriers to understanding refutations of anti-vaxxers’ claims.

The first is that this type of research is not always accessible: misinformation is rife. The second is false equivalence. The fact that there are equal amounts of discussion on either side falls into the same trap as centrist discourse—it suggests that the two sides deserve equal consideration.

But a carefully set-up and peer-reviewed experiment is not on par with fevered new age ranting. The third problem is one of human instinct—we’re emotional creatures.

The safety of vaccines, backed up by technically complex statistics on the bioavailability of aluminium salts, doesn’t conjure up the same visceral, primal response as ‘our children are in danger because of the government!’

Skepticism is important; it helps us hold government to account. But in a context where skepticism is uninformed and unfounded, science must work to communicate the facts to us. That’s where science writing comes in.

Jane McCredie is the CEO of Writing NSW and has been directing its science writing event, Quantum Words, for the last two years. “I think in times when evidence and expertise are often under attack in the public sphere, it’s really important that we have quality writing about science and evidence to help inform public discussion and debate,” she tells me.

To serve this function, science writing needs to be accessible. A prank that resurfaces every few years warns the public about the “dihydrogen monoxide” in our drinks, only to reveal that this scary-sounding chemical compound is actually water. But this punishes people’s lack of literacy, failing to empathise with people who have been screwed over by a bad educational curriculum.

Scientific writing, then, does need to concede to populist rhetoric. McCredie agrees that it can’t all be cold, hard statistics.

“I think it’s very important that quality information and evidence is being put in front of people. But we also know that … we’re the kind of animal that responds very well to story,” she says. “I think there are ways to tell human stories while still being committed to fact.”

Perhaps more than any other type of writing, science writing is characterised by the tension between fact and fiction: between abstractions on the one hand, designed to take science away from political realities and into the romantic; and real-world grounding on the other, where science is located in the grit of current goings on.

As McCredie says, “You’ve got to keep very clear in your mind what the difference is between stories and evidence.”

Carl Sagan’s introduction to his book Pale Blue Dot made me cry the first time I read it.

“Look again at that dot … The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines … every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” he writes.

But Sagan’s call for human unity and kindness reads a little naive when, for instance, the Australian government is knowingly torturing refugees in offshore detention centres. Like all writing, science pieces must be read in context. Writing on climate change or data security may necessarily be less poetic than Sagan’s introduction.

Science writing is often accused of being dry—overly data-driven and statistical. However, statistics don’t necessarily spoil the romance of good communication. Stats are involved in any analysis article, and don’t necessarily tie that article to dryness. “There is no such thing as a boring topic. There are boring writers,” McCredie says.

And science writing is only a small piece of the puzzle. Education is critical to fostering the scientific literacy the government champions, but so rarely acts upon.

A curriculum that “makes a narrative of science” could encourage students to engage with the emotive aspect of science from an earlier age. This could boost interest in the technical facets of science later on. As McCredie notes, “It’s not just about getting people into STEM pipeline, it’s also about having a population that is more generally engaged with science.

“If people even have a basic understanding of the scientific method they’re not going to fall for the anti-vaccine stuff.”


Quantum Words is taking place on Saturday November 3, 2018 at Callan Park.

Tickets are available at: https://writingnsw.org.au/whats-on/events/science-writing-festival-quantum-words/